Exploring Identity Negotiation in Adventist-raised Gays and Lesbians in Norway

Published:
October 1, 2019

This article presents some of the findings of a master’s level research project exploring the process of identity negotiation among ten Adventist-raised homosexuals in South Norway. Based on data collected through in-depth interviews and analyzed from the perspective of identity theory in combination with a four-path model of identity conflict resolution strategies, the thesis explores how social ties and religious affiliation affects the identity forming process in the context of Norwegian Adventism. Four emerging themes (“within-ness,” silence/avoidance, moral acceptability, and the parental role) are further briefly discussed in light of some moral, social, and political implications drawn from Rappaport’s empowerment theory and Honneth’s theory of recognition.

(The full thesis can be read online here: Negotiating Identities: The Case of Adventist-raised Gays and Lesbians in Norway.)

Background and purpose of research project

Forming an identity in a conservative religious environment has posed a major challenge to many gays and lesbians. Realizing one’s homosexual identity under such circumstances often leads to a tension or identity conflict (Thumma, 1991; Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000; Anderton, Pender, & Asner-Self, 2011). In seeking to resolve conflict between their religious and sexual identities, gays and lesbians have applied different conflict resolution strategies. These include 1) rejecting their religious identity, 2) rejecting their homosexual identity, 3) compartmentalizing identities, or 4) seeking to integrate their homosexual and religious identity (Rodriguez & Ouellette, 2000). Using this four-path model in combination with the analytical tools provided in identity theory, I sought to explore the identity formation process among homosexuals raised in the Norwegian Seventh-day Adventist Church. One extensive study has been done on gay and lesbian Adventists in North America (cf. Drumm, 2005; Drumm, 2008).

The topic of homosexuality has often been dominated by a theological and/or political and polarizing discourse around the issue within the SDA Church, with surprisingly little regard or reference to the social and psychological health aspect of the homosexual subjects as holistic human beings. My thesis seeks both to bring further attention to the social and psychological health aspect of homosexuals within the SDA Church (and on a more general level in society), as well as to demonstrate some initial normative implications of what a healthy social and psychological environment might entail in the Adventist context.

Four central themes and main outcomes

Four salient themes emerged from the interviews with my informants. These four themes I have dubbed 1) “within-ness,” 2) moral acceptability, 3) silence/avoidance, and 4) the parental role. Based on central socio-psychological mechanisms proposed by identity theory (such as identity-verification and the perceptual control system; cf. Burke & Stets, 2009), I suggest there is an experienced notion of a hegemonic Adventist identity on the informants’ behalf. As their Adventist identity governs major and vital aspects of their social and psychological life and health, most informants report making serious efforts to conform and to reject/suppress their interfering homosexual identity. Culminating in an identity crisis, most end up either rejecting their Adventist identity or seeking to integrate their homosexual and Adventist identities.

Silence/avoidance: “No one ever mentioned the word”

The first major theme that emerges from the interviews is the theme of silence and/or avoidance around the topic of homosexuality. One of the informants relates,

“No one ever talked about homosexuality when I grew up, and no one ever mentioned the word. No one ever stated it was wrong. Yet it was in a way — it was implied through the entire system that it was not an alternative.”

Despite the generally experienced silence on the topic (some reported enduring fiery remarks by their parents whenever homosexuality was brought up at home), many report feeling a keen sense of incongruity between their homosexual feelings (once they became aware of them) and their Adventist context. Even before their own awareness, most informants relate experiencing an unease and discomfort in the rare occasion that homosexuality was casually referred to.

Another informant relates how religiously inferred ideals led him to pursue a “perfect life” according to all the religious and social values he had internalized. Years after having gone through a nerve-wracking coming out process, he recounts some ambivalent feelings about the outcome.

“I am very thankful that [family and friends] took it as well as they did, and the pastors. But there was very soon a vacuum. And that is what I think is so strange — that people did not take it more seriously. That they did not express more care, more inclusivity, ask how I was doing seeing how this permeates all of life. From pastors you have admired for many years! Instead, there is silence, distance, and something they still will not talk about.”

Three informants report enduring the disdaining remarks from their parents whenever confronted with homosexuality in media. These fiery remarks led them to fear for their own security at home after realizing their own gay and lesbian orientation. These informants, as well as others, report spending considerable amounts of time trying to suppress and/or eliminate their homosexuality — a second major theme that emerged during the interviews.

Moral acceptability and suppression

Another central theme focuses on Adventist code and an Adventist preoccupation with religious/moral acceptability of behavior. Whether it be with an ideological impetus from end-time urgency or it be in the social context of family values and social code, the idea of fulfilling a set of expectations in order to be ethical and morally acceptable for God, the church, and/or family and friends is a central theme pervading all of the informants’ accounts of their Adventist upbringing.

“The reason I am sharing this incident is to illustrate this thing about the truth, in a sense. And if you are not “within” — if you do not do what is expected of you, what the Bible teaches, then you will not go to heaven. And that is what has been the main focus in my upbringing. (…) If I had any feelings that were not in harmony with what was normal, this was a sufficient reason to keep them as far under the carpet as possible.”

Eight out of ten informants reported having attempted to suppress (i.e. reject) their own homosexuality. However, not all such attempts were conscious or even understood as such in the informants’ own minds at the time.

“I did not ponder it, to put it that way. Because — I can perhaps now see that I was a bit afraid as to whether there would be this kind of deviance in me. It was at least something I would not talk about with anyone.”

The struggle to fulfill his ideals culminated in another informant’s entering an engagement with his girlfriend as a means of “tying himself to the mast.”

“Well, it was sort of an avoidance thing. Right? ‘I will not continue to be interested in men’ and all that. So now, we are going all-in to, like, force myself to remain faithful, keeping it all about women and, like… ‘I will manage to live this heterosexual life that I in a sense have said that I would (…).’ So, it is a way of tying yourself to the mast.”

Another informant relates that while attempting in various ways to suppress and/or remove his same-sex attractions by invoking a sexual or romantic attraction to girls, he began praying that God would kill him.

“So then, when it [removing my attraction to men] did not work, I was, like, ‘Okay, repress your sexuality.’ (…) I prayed every night that God would either heal me or kill me before I became gay. Because if God made sure that I was run over by a bus — I cannot commit suicide, because then I murder myself, and that is wrong. However, if God sends a bus that can run over me before I do anything with another man, then I have not done anything wrong. So, then it was, — ‘You must either heal me, God, or you must kill me, because I will not kill myself — and I do not want to become gay.’”

Similarly, another informant explains the roots of her own struggle for healing from her homosexual orientation.

“As dad and I were discussing homosexuality in Sabbath school, I felt a bit sorry for the poor gays. (…) ‘But dad, can we not… What if you are gay?’ (…) Then he said, ‘Well, if you are gay then you must simply pray to God, and then he will fix you.’ It was a simple solution, so I remembered it and kept praying… ‘Phew, now you are being fixed!’”

“Within-ness”

Church-centeredness emerges as an important theme in all of the informants reflections on their religious upbringing. One informant explains how the close-knit and socially all-encompassing community of the SDA Church made her choice to leave thus more difficult, seeing so many positive things about the Adventist community.

“It was good, but I do not think I had the feeling that there was any alternative, you know? (…) Everything is within. (…) I think — it takes a lot to leave this, because there is so much good that is going on, there are so many good people, so many good attitudes, activities, projects, right? That it takes a lot to turn this down for something else.”

This “within-ness” results, as she sees it now, in a lack of knowledge in the church in regards to social and societal issues and poses a challenge to the relevance of the church to people outside in wider society.

“I find that there are massive gaps in knowledge. Real knowledge gaps. (…) There might be differences between those [Adventists] working within the Adventist community and those who have (…) regular jobs outside in society — because then you are subjected to diverse influences. However, [I wish] that people would take in literature and research that is not written by Adventists and not published at Norsk Bokforlag [the Norwegian Adventist publisher]. It can really become, like — you reproduce yourself so much that you will not take in other experience. (…) Like, it turns into a club.”

Some moral implications

Most of the informants report struggling with anxiety, depression, and shame for being gay, fearing the rejection of family, friends, and God if they were to acknowledge the truth about who they were. Finally, most also felt they had to distance themselves from the church in order to heal, be authentic, and feel a sense of positive self-value.

Based on the findings, and using insights from Rappaport’s empowerment theory and Honneth’s theory of recognition, I further discuss some normative implications for an empowering and positive/healthy identity formation for homosexuals in the church. I conclude that themes of Adventist identity (“within-ness,” moral acceptability, and the parental role) can be reframed and used as to create a safe place for gay and lesbian community members.

The emphasis of the Adventist sense of moral acceptability, for instance, can be shifted away from exclusive behaviors focused on rules/codes towards the deeper Adventist/Christian behavioral principles, such as showing love, compassion, tolerance, and mercy/grace. This shift in moral emphasis is traced in the informants’ own self-healing process and positive identity (re-)formation. In a theological context, such a shift happens along a dialectic tension between two Christian antinomies — or, within the paradox (Rappaport, 1981) — of “law” and “grace.” A shift towards “grace” (speaking in theological terms) allows for a positive view of homosexuals as valuable and respectable individuals in the church and in society, and thus opens for a sense of safety and the possibility for authenticity and healing from anxiety, depression, and shame among gays and lesbians in the Adventist community.

Some questions for further reflection

• How might the Adventist health message as “the right hand” of the Gospel be used to serve the social and psychological health and well-being of homosexuals in the community and in the church?

• If homosexuals are becoming mentally ill and socially bankrupt by how they are treated in church (forcing many to distance themselves from the church for the sake of their own sanity), is the church’s current practice or attitude defendable from the Gospels and Christian/Adventist ethics and health claims?

• How might the dialectic or tension between “law” and “mercy”/“grace” in Adventist theology — the tension between the ideal and the real — be used dynamically as to help and inspire (rather than to harm and discourage) highly diverse groups of people with diverse needs and experiences (such as LGBTs) in the church and in the community?

 

David-Kingsley Kendel, MPhil, is currently studying practical pedagogy (the Norwegian teacher’s certificate program) at the University of Oslo, working part-time as a tutor. Holding a BA in theology from Newbold College, he recently earned an MPhil after having completed a master’s program in religion and sociology at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

 

References

Anderton, C. L., Pender, D. A., & Asner-Self, K. K. (2011). A Review of the Religious Identity/Sexual Orientation Identity Conflict Literature: Revisiting Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 5, pp. 259-281.

Burke, P. J., & Stets, J. E. (2009). Identity Theory [Kindle]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from www.amazon.co.uk

Drumm, R. (2005). No Longer an Oxymoron: Integrating Gay and Lesbian Seventh-day Adventist Identities. In S. Thumma, & E. R. Gray (Eds.), Gay Religion (pp. 47-65). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Drumm, R. D. (2008). Perspectives Interaction and Angst: The Social Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Seventh-day Adventists. In D. Ferguson, F. Guy, & D. R. Larson (Eds.), Christianity and Homosexuality — Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives (p. Part Three). Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum.

Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000, September). Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay-Positive Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39(3), pp. 333-347. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1387818

Thumma, S. (1991, Winter). Negotiating a Religious Identity: The Case of the Gay Evangelical. Sociological Analysis, 52(4), pp. 333-347. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3710850

 

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

 

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